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Leonard, Peter --- "Workplace surveillance and privacy" [2021] ANZCompuLawJl 16; (2021) 93 Computers & Law 60

Workplace surveillance and privacy [1]

Peter Leonard [1]

30 June 2020

What is privacy and surveillance? The problem statement

Reasonable and proportionate surveillance in a workplace can benefit employers in many ways, including:

• improving safety and security of property and personnel,

• providing evidence that the employer is providing a safe system of work,

• increasing efficiency and performance of the business,

• enabling employee performance management,

• assisting in reducing adverse consequences of fatigue.

However, implementation of workplace surveillance often creates tension between an employer and employees.

Determining what is reasonable and proportionate in workplace surveillance, while taking into account human dignity, autonomy and expectations of privacy, is challenging.

The challenge increases when employees are observed and monitored outside a traditional workplace and through non-obvious means, such as where an employer monitors the use of employer provided resources by employees working outside the traditional workplace, and 24x7x365 monitoring or use of Bring Your Own (BYO) smartphones and other employer funded devices. Many employers have scrambled to enable remote working under COVID-19 restrictions without first evaluating whether associated monitoring was reasonable and proportionate. Upon re-opening of workplaces, some employers are implementing new technologies to monitor workplace activities in order to address COVID-19 related health and safety concerns. Some employers do not think about the legality of workplace surveillance at all, let alone whether particular surveillance activities are reasonable and proportionate.

Compliance with law and with good ethical principles is patchy, at best.

Without seeking to justify non-compliance, it should be noted that understanding of Australian law governing employee surveillance is limited, among lawyers and employers. Despite growing awareness of data privacy law, the laws governing business use of surveillance technologies remains under analysed and is often misunderstood.

It does not help that the relevant Australian laws are, to put it boldly, an incoherent mess.

This paper will explain why that statement is not an exaggeration.

Let’s start by making sure that we know what we are going to talk about.

Privacy may be described in a general way as the interests a person has in controlling what others know about them, in being left alone and in being free from interference or intrusion: the ‘right to be let alone’.[2]

Is privacy different to surveillance?

Surveillance, in its broad dictionary meaning of watching over, is an everyday practice in which human beings engage routinely, often unthinkingly. In statutes, surveillance generally has a more specific usage, referring to some focused and purposive attention to objects, data, or persons. In this sense, surveillance is context-specific and is ‘always hinged to some specific purposes’.[3]

Surveillance may be overt or covert, or a combination of both. Surveillance may be described as ‘overt’ where the subject of surveillance is aware that surveillance is occurring, or the surveillance device is not concealed – for example, CCTV cameras in a bank. Surveillance may be described as ‘covert’ where the subject of surveillance is not aware that surveillance is occurring, or the surveillance device is concealed – for example, a listening device planted in a person’s car.

Data privacy laws and surveillance laws are intended to provide us with a choice over how we interact with others and what others get to know about us, even as we go about our activities in public or semi-public locations such as workplaces. Protection of privacy is not dependent on classification of physical spaces as public or private. We do not leave our legitimate expectations of privacy behind when we walk out the front door of our home, or into our workplace. Of course, our reasonable expectations of privacy have to flex, to adapt to what it is reasonable for us to expect in the particular environment in which we find ourselves. In a COVID-19 world, our reasonable expectations of privacy must accommodate other humans’ reasonable expectation that we will not put their health at unacceptable risk, and our expectation as employees that our employers will take all reasonable steps to ensure our health and safety at work. Even in a stressed COVID-19 world where personal health rightly becomes a critical concern, the law should be able to accommodate this flexing without, to mix metaphors, throwing out the valued baby of a right to be left alone with the bathwater of everyday necessity of walking down the street and going about our work.

Most data privacy laws are intended to empower individuals by informing them how data about them may be being collected and used, and thereby enable them to exercise a choice. This is the ‘notice and choice’, or ‘notice and consent’, framework for data privacy regulation.

Critiques of this framework for data privacy regulation focus upon the ‘illusion of consent’, as described by Paul Ohm and other privacy scholars, or its more recent restatement by Dan Solove and others as ‘the privacy self-management problem’.[4] In brief, these criticisms revolve around the problem of expecting affected individuals to properly understand and make a choice about whether to accept an act or practice which affects the individual’s privacy, and particularly when there is often no practical ability for each of us to say no, or even no to that, but it might be OK if you did it this way other way...[insert here].

Consider the following scenarios:

• If a particular pathway between my bus stop and the office bristles with CCTV and there are no other reasonably convenient alternative routes, do I really exercise a choice to walk down that street and then become the subject of CCTV surveillance?

• If my employer introduces iris scanning at the entrance to the washrooms to determine whether I and others are spending too long on our comfort breaks (and, if my workplace is in NSW and Victoria, my employer gives me the required 14 days’ prior notice), do I really have a choice? Where is the regulatory control over my employer to ensure that my employer assesses whether this surveillance is a reasonable infringement upon my freedom to go about daily life without constant surveillance, and where is the incentive for my employer to implement surveillance in the least invasive way that is reasonably practicable?

Some critiques of “notice and choice” suggest that this framework needs to be supplemented, or replaced, by an additional requirement of demonstrated organisational accountability of the entity that is collecting, handling or disclosing personal information about the affected individual, or instituting surveillance of a human, identifiable or not.[5]

In my iris scanning example, where is the control (whether in workplace relations law, surveillance law, human rights law, or anywhere else), so that my employer:

not only

• describes to an affected individual (viz. me) the purpose and extent of a proposed surveillance that affects my ability to go about my daily life free from constant surveillance,

but also

• ensures that this proposed surveillance is necessary and proportionate to achieve a reasonable outcome, with reasonableness judged by consideration of the degree and extent of impact upon legitimate expectations of privacy, societal interests (such as in health and safety of other individuals), and the interests of my employer in profitably conducting business by operating a safe and productive workplace.

After all, my capacity as an employee to object about what my employer is doing is significantly constrained– particularly if unemployment rates are on the rise and I have kids and a mortgage.

Is my iris scanning example fanciful?

In Jeremy Lee v Superior Wood Pty Ltd [2019] FWCFB 2946, the Full Bench of the Australian Fair Work Commission (FWC) determined that a direction given to an employee to provide his fingerprint – his biometric data – was not a lawful and reasonable direction from the employer, and consequently the employee’s refusal to comply with the new company policy was not a valid reason for his dismissal.[6] Read carefully, this decision turned on whether the employer implemented biometric identification requirement only after following the legally prescribed process. The FWC’s determination (legally correctly) did not require a consideration of whether the biometric identification requirement was itself reasonable.

It is of course fashionable in Australia to blame the government for just about anything that is wrong in our lives (aside: there is a thesis that needs to be written about whether this is an Australian national characteristic born of Australia’s convict heritage and the near starvation of the infant colony). In this case the zeitgeist is right:

• No Australian Parliament has enacted a baseline human rights statute against which data privacy impacting acts and practices of Australian entities must be considered.

• Australian data privacy and surveillance statutes generally do not tie particular statutory requirements back to any stated right of privacy, standard of reasonableness or fairness, or any test as to the necessity or proportionality of the relevant, privacy affecting, act or practice.[7]

We could fill this gap by workplace specific laws.

But what is so different about a workplace?

There are many places that I venture where I do not get to exercise a real choice: a railway concourse, a pedestrian tunnel, the food court downstairs from my office, and so on.

Is this problem hard to fix?

Contrast, for example, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act of Canada (PIPEA), which relevantly provides as follows:

Appropriate purposes

5(3) An organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider are appropriate in the circumstances

Valid consent

6.1 For the purposes of clause 4.3 [PIPEDA Fair Information Principle 3 – Consent”] of Schedule 1, the consent of an individual is only valid if it is reasonable to expect that an individual to whom the organization’s activities are directed would understand the nature, purpose and consequences of the collection, use or disclosure of the personal information to which they are consenting.

In applying subsection 5(3), Canadian courts have generally taken into consideration whether the collection, use or disclosure of personal information is directed to a bona fide business interest, and whether the loss of privacy is proportional to any benefit gained.[8] The following factors have been stated to be relevant in determination of whether an organization’s purpose complies with subsection 5(3):

• the degree of sensitivity of the personal information at issue;

• whether the organization’s purpose represents a legitimate need / bona fide business

• interest;

• whether the collection, use and disclosure would be effective in meeting the organization’s need;

• whether there are less invasive means of achieving the same ends at comparable cost and with comparable benefits; and

• whether the loss of privacy is proportional to the benefits.[9]

Could we adapt this standard and build it into Australian surveillance statutes? After all, the purported right of choice to be the subject of surveillance is problematic, unless:

• coupled with incentives to or constraints upon entities collecting, using or disclosing personal information, and

• those incentives or constraints operate to ensure outcomes which are not reasonable having regard to the extent and impact of the activities of the regulated entities upon data privacy rights of affected individuals.

There are relatively few provisions in data privacy laws today:

• that create no-go zones (i.e. prohibitions on CCTV in changerooms and toilets) as to collection or use of workplace related data, or

• that hard code controls and safeguards as to what an employer can ask of an employee by way of consent to workplace monitoring or surveillance, even where these activities significantly impact an employee’s reasonable expectations of privacy.

Walk right in[10], to workplace surveillance

Because notice and consent largely govern workplace surveillance, the baseline below which workplace surveillance is not acceptable is largely left to workplace bargaining, as partially constrained by general employment law and the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

That noted, there may be other restrictions on the use of surveillance devices in the workplace which impact employers: conditions in enterprise agreements, employment contracts, workplace policies or subcontractor agreements which prohibit the use of those devices or those records.[11]

All enterprise agreements have dispute resolution clauses that enable disputes to be arbitrated by the FWC.[12] The implementation or expansion of workplace surveillance has regularly led to disputes between employers and employees that have been arbitrated. Experience to date is that the FWC will generally accept that the use of workplace surveillance is justifiable if there has been compliance with relevant State or Territory laws and the surveillance is demonstrated to be for a legitimate purpose, such as to ensure compliance with work health and safety obligations.

However, without no-go zones, or hard-coded upfront controls, and with the ability of many employers to exert influence over employees to extract ‘consent’, some employers (deliberately or inadvertently) cross the blurred line between should and can.

Which leads to the three key questions of workplace privacy:

• What is a workplace?

• What should be an employee’s reasonable expectations of privacy within a workplace?

• What are the workplace privacy boundaries that reasonable employers should observe?

Our changing workplace

• The range and depth of workplace data has exploded. Means of collection of data about our workplace activities have proliferated.[13] Those means are increasingly automated and remote from the employee unobserved and potentially covert.

• There are many good reasons for collection and analysis by employers of workplace data about activities of employees. For some business activities, monitoring is becoming commonplace for quality control or assurance, for risk management (i.e. of driver fatigue[14]) or as a regulatory requirement (e.g. rules on traders in securities and new regulatory requirements such as the EU’s ‘Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II’ (MiFID) requires that anyone involved in giving financial service and/or advice that leads to, or may lead to, a transaction, must record their conversation – including mobile – and securely store these records).

• Our workplaces have merged with our homes. For many of us, our workplace is now agile, a virtual place we construct anywhere, anytime, from bits and pieces carried in a backpack and using an internet connection. And in lockdown, our workplace is anywhere at home where we can get away from other noisy occupants.[15]

• Many laptops, smartphones and online resources (like Microsoft365 cloud services) that we use are made available or paid for by the employer, but also permitted to be used for personal, social and family activities. Some employees would prefer their employers not to know about some of those activities, and some of those activities are frankly none of their employer’s business, even if the employer pays for the device or service.

• Cyberthreats and data exfiltrations have rightly led to employer concerns over the management of confidential and commercially sensitive information on devices on which we work and online resources that we access and use.

• Humans are fallible. Work related data is as accessible as the weakest vulnerability point in the work data ecosystem allows it to be found. And sometimes that weakest point is the CEO’s iPad.

• An employee who is rogue or careless with data is creating large financial and reputational exposures for employers, through data breach liability (i.e. Morrisons Supermarkets[16]) or damage from other data exfiltrations (i.e. the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers (Glenmore, the ATO and Operation Wickenby) and so on)[17].

• The careless employee who is careless or dumb in posting silly or actionable things on social media may also create financial and reputational exposures for employers (i.e. Jason Cleary and his admirers).

Privacy and surveillance

There are four main types of privacy protected by laws in some jurisdictions:

• of the person, or bodily privacy—the interest in freedom from interference with an individual’s physical person and bodily integrity, including from direct and indirect physical intrusions. It may also include psychological intrusion.

• of personal space, or territorial privacy—the interest in limiting intrusion into personal spaces, including in the home, workplace and in public. This concerns a person’s sense of personal safety and dignity as well as their property rights.

• of personal communications, or communications and surveillance privacy—the interest in freedom from interference with personal communications, including interception, recording, monitoring or surveillance.

• of personal information, or data privacy—the interest in controlling access to, use and disclosure of information about the person, including images and information ‘derived from analysis’ of other data.

Australian statutes generally only protect communications and surveillance privacy and data privacy, and then only in limited circumstances.

Surveillance, in the broad sense of watching over, is an everyday practice in which human beings engage routinely, often unthinkingly.

Different forms of surveillance capture different types of data:[18]

Listening or audio surveillance—listening to or recording sounds, usually conversations. This may be done with the assistance of aids to enhance human hearing, such as directional microphones, voice recorders or ‘bugs’. It may also include intercepting communications, such as phone conversations or voice communications over the internet.

Optical or visual surveillance—watching a person or place. It may be undertaken with the assistance of aids to enhance human vision, such as telescopes or infra-red binoculars. It may also include the use of devices that can record or stream images, such as cameras, video recorders or CCTV.

Data surveillance—the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons. It may include surveillance of a person’s electronic records, including those relating to credit cards or loyalty cards, email communications or computer usage and internet activities using tools such as cookies, keystroke monitoring or spyware.

Tracking or location surveillance—the observation or recording of a target’s location. Location data may capture the location of a person or object at a point in time or monitor a person’s movements in real-time. It may also involve predictive tracking or retrospective tracking, based on the data trail of a person’s movements. Examples of location and tracking devices include global positioning system (GPS) and satellite technology tracking, radio frequency identification (RFID), and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).

Biometric surveillance—the collection or recording of biological samples and physical or behavioural characteristics, usually for the purpose of identifying an individual. This may include fingerprints, cheek swabs, iris scans and blood. It may also include alertness monitors installed in trucks, smart caps monitoring driver fatigue, and so on.

That noted, Australian statutes addressing surveillance generally do not define surveillance.

And as well, many Australian statutes addressing data protection are entitled privacy statutes, but do not actually define what data privacy is, or how rules about collection, use and disclosure of personal information about individuals actually address privacy.

As already noted above, a fundamental problem of workplace privacy in Australia is that Australian data protection statutes and surveillance devices statutes generally follow a notice and choice framework: that is, prohibiting collection, use or disclosure of personal information about individuals, and particular forms of surveillance, unless prior notice is given to the affected person. Sometimes that right of choice is reinforced by a right to consent, or withhold consent, but often provision of reasonably prominent notice discharges the statutory obligation. Many surveillance activities can occur without an individual being asked for consent, and without any practical ability to refuse consent. And so we see more and more CCTV cameras in semi-public places, with notices saying you may be being observed, but without any ability to turn the camera off.

Most Australian surveillance statutes permit use of a surveillance device, however privacy invasive the particular use may be, where that use is with the prior consent of the person surveilled. And as we have noted, that is the heart of the problem: for there to be a real choice, an ability to withhold consent, there needs to be a practical ability to choose to say no.

The employment relationship is a strange beast. Modern workplace lawyers like to make a distinction between a contract of service and a contract of servitude, a contract of servitude being what servants and slaves like Maximus Decimus Meridius[19] endured back in the bad old days before the reign of Bob Hawke[20]. If your employer can decide when and how you are observed and monitored, and now the employer has the practical ability to do that wherever and whenever the employee purports to work (through monitoring of use workplace supplied devices and services), have you been digitally teleported back into a contract of servitude?

Where is the legal protection to ensure that workplace surveillance is fair, reasonably necessary and proportionate to the need for your employer to provide a safe work environment?

The Privacy Act 1988 (and State and Territory information privacy statutes)

Many employers are not aware of how regulation of data privacy and how regulation of use of surveillance and tracking devices interests and impacts what employers can do, how and when.

Many more Australian businesses are regulated by the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act) than think that they are.

The Privacy Act applies to:

• any entity within a corporate group that turns over more than AU$3 million in global gross group revenue per annum, and

• various other entities, including organisations providing services pursuant to federal government contracts and so on.

There is a relatively narrow employee records exemption under the Privacy Act. By section 7B(3), an act done, or practice engaged in, by an APP entity that is or was an employer of an individual, is exempt if the act or practice is directly related to:

(a) a current or former employment relationship between the employer and the individual; and

(b) an employee record held by the organisation and relating to the individual.

An employee record is defined under section 6(1) of the Privacy Act to mean a record of personal information relating to the employment of the employee.

This exemption does not cover contractors and subcontractors when they handle the personal information of the employees of another organisation, notwithstanding their contractual arrangements.

Examples include health information about an employee, as well as personal information relating to:

• the engagement, training, disciplining, resignation or termination of employment of an employee

• the terms and conditions of employment of an employee

• the employee's personal and emergency contact details, performance or conduct, hours of employment or salary or wages

• the employee's membership of a professional or trade association or trade union membership

• the employee's recreation, long service, sick, maternity, paternity or other leave

• the employee's taxation, banking or superannuation affairs.[21]

Many employers and lawyers think that this exemption is much broader than it actually is.

For example, it clearly does not give a green light for workplace surveillance, and it arguably does not include collections that are not yet records.[22]

The above noted, the view of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is clear:

The Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act) doesn’t specifically cover surveillance in the workplace.

However, an employer who conducts surveillance or monitors their staff must follow any relevant Australian, state or territory laws. This includes laws applying to the monitoring and recording of telephone conversations.

Generally, state laws cover the installation and use of CCTV, and some states also have specific workplace surveillance laws.

It may be reasonable for an employer to monitor some activities to ensure staff are doing their work and using resources appropriately. If your employer monitors staff use of email, internet and other computer resources, and they’ve told you about the monitoring, this would generally be allowed.

If an employer keeps a record of their monitoring then the Australian Privacy Principles may apply. For example, a CCTV video recording or a computer record of emails that doesn’t directly relate to your employment.[23]

Telecommunications privacy

The Telecommunications Interception and Access Act 1979 (Cth) (TIA Act) prohibits live interception of the interception of content of communications and access to stored communications (such as emails, SMS and voicemails) on certain communications infrastructure.

The TIA Act sets out certain exceptions to these prohibitions to permit eligible Australian law enforcement and security agencies to:

• obtain warrants to intercept communications;

• obtain warrants to access stored communications;

• authorise the disclosure of telecommunications data.

Agencies can only obtain warrants or give authorisations for national security or law enforcement purposes set out in the TIA Act.

State and Territory surveillance and tracking devices laws

There are State and Territory surveillance and tracking devices laws in all States and Territories. These laws are outdated, inconsistent, poorly understood (including by lawyers), and in some cases, simply poorly drafted.[24]

For example:

• It is unclear whether a multi-purpose device like a mobile phone or a courier despatching system is in fact a regulated surveillance device or tracking device when geolocation information is captured and used.

• In some statutes it is unclear whether an act or practice which is not directly within the offence provision but is within the description of matters requiring notice and consent as stated by the statute is in fact unlawful.

• The position in relation to employer monitoring of calls, emails and instant messages sent from third party senders to employees varies significantly: some State statutes appear to require two party (sender and recipient) consent, others (Victoria, Queensland and the ACT) allow one party to consent (sometimes referred to as a ‘participant monitoring exception’).

The statutes take a variety of forms, but they generally require prior consent of an affected individual to uses of surveillance devices or tracking devices to monitor their activities, and provide criminal offences for conventions.

There is considerable ambiguity in the individual statutes about the level of specificity, extent and clarity of information required to establish that a consent is ‘informed’. Where vague and general information is offered, particularly in relation to the identity of third parties who may get access to the information, consent may not be properly ‘informed’. However, many surveillance notices and other disclosures, like many privacy policies, are vague.

Consent may also be sought for a wide range of collections, uses or disclosures which are not essential to the provision of a particular service. In many circumstances, the subject has little practical choice but to consent.

The most comprehensive laws governing workplace surveillance are in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, where workplace specific controls clearly aim to balance the need for security and safety in the workplace with an employee’s right to privacy.

In Victoria, the regulation of workplace surveillance is embedded in the Surveillance Devices Act 1999 (Vic). The Act prohibits the use of surveillance devices in the workplace in toilets, washrooms, change rooms and lactation rooms.

South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland do not have specific workplace surveillance laws in place. Workplace surveillance is there covered by general privacy and surveillance laws.

Queensland has a current law reform reference as to the need for specific workplace surveillance laws.

Victoria has a long standing law reform reference which seems to have slipped down the agenda.

“Workplace” surveillance statutes have a built-in problem: although they permit certain forms of (prior notified) surveillance when an employee is ‘at work’, whether in a recognised workplace or at home or on the move, in flexible work environments nowadays, how does an employer know when an employee is at work?

In summary, surveillance and tracking devices laws are an inconsistent and sometimes incoherent patchwork,[25] at a time when the use of surveillance and tracking in workplaces and elsewhere is rapidly proliferating. Workplace surveillance laws are part of this patchwork.

NSW and ACT workplace surveillance legislation

NSW and the ACT have specific workplace surveillance statutes: the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 (NSW)[26] and the Workplace Privacy Act 2011 (ACT)[27].

The NSW and ACT statutes include qualified prohibitions[28] of “covert surveillance”[29] and use of covert surveillance records and require notice to be given to employees at least 14 days prior to surveillance commencing which includes details of:

• the type of surveillance to be carried out;

• how the surveillance will be carried out;

• when the surveillance will commence;

• whether the surveillance will be continuous or intermittent; and

• whether the surveillance will be for a specified limited period or ongoing.

In the ACT it is also necessary to include in the notice:

• who the regular or ordinary subject of the surveillance will be;

• the purpose for which the employer may use and disclose the surveillance; and

• that the worker may consult with the employer about the conduct of the surveillance.

NSW and the ACT also have specific provisions in place in relation to the need for notices on vehicles that are the subject of tracking, computer monitoring policies, notices identifying that cameras are operating in the workplace and the visibility of the cameras in the workplace.

The NSW Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 addresses surveillance (not a defined term) of an employee[30] at work by any of the following means:

(a) camera surveillance, which is surveillance by means of a camera that monitors or records visual images of activities on premises or in any other place,

(b) computer surveillance, which is surveillance by means of software or other equipment that monitors or records the information input or output, or other use, of a computer (including, but not limited to, the sending and receipt of emails and the accessing of Internet websites),

(c) tracking surveillance, which is surveillance by means of an electronic device the primary purpose of which is to monitor or record geographical location or movement (such as a Global Positioning System tracking device).[31]

The NSW definition of surveillance in section 3 includes a note: “This Act does not apply to surveillance by means of a listening device. See section 4 (3) of the Surveillance Devices Act 2007. Camera surveillance that is regulated by this Act will also be regulated by the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 if the camera is used to record a private conversation.”

Section 16 provides an express “prohibition on surveillance using work surveillance device while employee not at work”:

(1) An employer must not carry out, or cause to be carried out, surveillance of an employee of the employer using a work surveillance device when the employee is not at work for the employer unless the surveillance is computer surveillance of the use by the employee of equipment or resources provided by or at the expense of the employer.

Maximum penalty: 50 penalty units.

(2) A work surveillance device is a device used for surveillance of the employee when at work for the employer.

(3) This section does not apply to the carrying out, or causing to be carried out, of surveillance by an employer that is a law enforcement agency.

The Workplace Privacy Act 2011 (ACT) addresses surveillance (not a defined term) of a worker[32] in a workplace[33], being “a place where work is, has been, or is to be, carried out by or for someone conducting a business or undertaking”, by any of the following means: a data surveillance device

(a) [which] means a device or program capable of being used to record or monitor the input of information into or the output of information from a computer; but

(b) does not include an optical surveillance device.

an optical surveillance device

(a) [which] means a device capable of being used to record visually or observe an activity; but

(b) does not include spectacles, contact lenses or a similar device used by a person with impaired sight to overcome that impairment.

The workplace provision in the ACT is quite different from that in NSW:

Surveillance of workers not at work

(1) An employer commits an offence if the employer conducts surveillance of a worker if the worker is not in a workplace.

Maximum penalty: 50 penalty units.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply if—

(a) the employer conducts surveillance of a worker’s use of equipment or resources provided by the employer using a data surveillance device; or

(b) the employer conducts surveillance using a tracking device that includes a tracking function that cannot be deactivated; or

(c) the employer is a law enforcement agency.

Note The employer has an evidential burden in relation to the matters mentioned in s (2) (see Criminal Code, s 58).

(3) For subsection (2) (a), equipment or resources are taken to be provided by an employer if the employer has met the cost of the equipment or resources.[34]

Disclosure and use of surveillance records is specifically regulated in each of NSW and the ACT. To disclose surveillance records in NSW and the ACT one of the following conditions must be met:

• there must be a legitimate purpose related to the employment of the employees or the business activities or functions of the employer

• disclosure is to a member or officer of a law enforcement agency and is for use in connection with the detection, investigation or prosecution of an offence

• use or disclosure is for a purpose directly or indirectly related to the taking of criminal or civil proceedings

• use or disclosure is reasonably believed to be necessary to avert an imminent threat of serious violence to persons or substantial damage to property.

Other statutes regulating the use of surveillance devices[35]

Other statutes regulating the use of surveillance devices in each Australian jurisdiction include:

Surveillance Devices Act 2004 (Cth)

Invasion of Privacy Act 1971 (Qld)

Listening Devices Act 1992 (ACT)

Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NSW) and Surveillance Devices Regulation 2014 (NSW)

Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NT) and Surveillance Devices Regulations 2008 (NT)

Surveillance Devices Act 2016 (SA) and Surveillance Devices Regulations 2017 (SA)

Listening Devices Act 1991 (Tas) and Listening Devices Regulations 2014 (Tas)

Surveillance Devices Act 1999 (Vic) and Surveillance Devices Regulations 2016 (Vic)

Surveillance Devices Act 1998 (WA) and Surveillance Devices Regulations 1999 (WA).

These laws provide criminal offences for the unauthorised use of up to four categories of device (variously defined in the statutes):

1. listening devices (some laws only cover these) – all jurisdictions

2. optical surveillance devices – but not in Qld or Tasmania or the ACT[36])

3. tracking devices[37] – but not in Qld or Tasmania or the ACT[38]

4. data surveillance devices – but not in WA or Qld or Tasmania or the ACT[39]

The statutes prohibit installation or operation of surveillance devices except in certain circumstances, generally if there is authorisation in the form of a warrant or consent for the purposes of law enforcement or criminal investigation.

They also prohibit communicating or publishing certain information, including information derived from the surveillance device, and also information about the use of the device which may reveal confidential operations and methods of law enforcement and security services using such devices.


I’m not going to bore you by repeating myself. Workplace surveillance laws in Australia are a mess and not fit for purpose. Employers and employees deserve better. This should not be hard to fix, if there is political will: see section 1 of this paper.

[1] Copyright © Peter Leonard (Data Synergies) 2020 This paper was delivered in the ANU Ninian Stephen Cyber Law Program of the Cyber Institute of the Australian National University

[1] Peter Leonard is a data, content and technology business consultant and lawyer advising data-driven business and government agencies. Peter is principal of Data Synergies and a Professor of Practice at UNSW Business School (IT Systems and Management, and Business and Taxation Law). Peter chairs the IoTAA’s Data Access, Use and Privacy work stream, the Law Society of New South Wales’ Privacy and Data Committee and the Australian Computer Society’s Artificial Intelligence and Ethics Technical Committee. He serves on a number of corporate and advisory boards. Peter was a founding partner of Gilbert + Tobin, now a large Australian law firm. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and not those of any of those other bodies and organisations.

[2] See further Cohen, Julie, ‘What is Privacy For’ (2013) 126 Harvard Law Review 1904; Nissenbaum, Helen, Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life, Stanford, CA, Stanford Law Books, 2010.

[3] See further Queensland Law Reform Commission, Review of Queensland’s laws relating to civil surveillance and the protection of privacy in the context of current and emerging technologies: Consultation Paper, December 2018.

[4] Ohm, Paul, ‘Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization’, (2010) 57 UCLA Law Review 1701; Ohm, Paul, “Changing the Rules: General Principles for Data Use and Analysis, in Lane, Julia I., Privacy, Big Data, and the Public Good : Frameworks for Engagement, New York: Cambridge University Press (2014), 96-111 Solove, Daniel J, “Privacy Self-Management and the Consent Dilemma” (2013) 126 Harvard Law Review 880–903.

[5] As summarised by Christopher Docksey ‘Keynote on Accountability At the 41st Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ (Key Note Address, Tirana, Albania, 24 October 2019); Marty Abrams, ‘Demonstrable Accountability and People Beneficial Data Use’, IAF (Blog Post, 24 March 2020), Marc Groman and Peter Cullen, ‘Take the Long View: Demonstrable Accountability’ (Blog Post, 13 April 2020); and Lynne Goldstein, “Bermuda Report on Information Accountability: Prepared by the Information Accountability Foundation for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Bermuda”, 28 March 2020, all available at See also Centre for Information Policy Leadership (CIPL), Organizational Accountability – Past, Present and Future, 30 October 2019, %E2%80%93_past_present_and_future__30_october_2019_.pdf.

[6] The reason for dismissal must be valid in the context of the employee’s capacity or conduct. Consideration of valid reason must have regard for the practical sphere of the relationship between an employer and an employee, balancing the rights, privileges, duties and obligations conferred and imposed on each to ensure a fair outcome: Selvachandran v Peteron Plastics Pty Ltd [1995] IRCA 333; (1995) 62 IR 371 .

[7] However, it should be noted that where there is genuine doubt as to whether the statutory language authorises a particular act or practice, “as a statement of general principle, legislation such as the Privacy Act should, as far as the statutory language permits, be construed so as to give effect to Australia’s international obligations (see, for example, NBGM v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs [2006] HCA 54; 231 CLR 52 at [61] per Callinan, Heydon and

Crennan JJ and Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs v QAAH of 2004 [2006] HCA 53; 231 CLR

[8] Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, ‘Guidance on Inappropriate Data Practices: Interpretation and Application of Subsection 5(3)’ (Guidance Note,, May 2018,,.

“Evaluating an organization’s purposes under 5(3)”; A.T. v., 2017 FC 114

[9] A.T. v., 2017 FC 114 at [74]; Ibid; see also Turner v. Telus Communications Inc., 2005 FC 1601, 39, affirmed 2007 FCA 21 at [48]; .

[10] If you guessed it, well done! Sung by The Rooftop Singers in the chart topping 1962 version. But did you know the song was written by early country musician Gus Cannon and originally recorded by Cannon's Jug Stompers in 1929 and released as a 78 rpm record?

[11] Fair Work Ombudsman, Best Practice Guide: Workplace Privacy,

[12] Fair Work Ombudsman, Best Practice Guide: Effective Dispute Resolution,

[13] See further Peter Leonard, ‘Data Ownership and the Regulation of Data Driven Businesses’, Scitech Lawyer (American Bar Association), 16/2, Winter 2020.

[14] For example, and case studies at and

[15] By section 5 of the NSW Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 No 475, the meaning of “at work” is “an employee is at work for an employer when the employee is: (a) at a workplace of the employer (or a related corporation of the employer) whether or not the employee is actually performing work at the time, or (b) at any other place while performing work for the employer (or a related corporation of the employer)”.

[16] WM Morrison Supermarkets plc (Appellant) v Various Claimants (Respondents) [2020] UKSC 12 (on appeal from [2018] EWCA Civ 2339); compare Information and Privacy Commission (NSW), NSW Informational Privacy Rights: Legislative Scope and Interpretation – Employer, Employee, and Agent Responsibilities – A Special Report under Section 61C Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998 (Report,2017); Anna Johnston, ‘Salinger Privacy, Training is Key to Avoiding Liability for Rogue Employees, (Blog Post, 1 October 2019),; Director General, Department of Education and Training v MT [2006] NSWCA 270; DGL v Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District [2018] NSWCATAD 296.

[17] See further Peter Leonard, ‘Surviving as Data Driven Lawyers in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (Research Paper, February 2020

[18] Queensland Law Reform Commission, ‘Review of Queensland’s Laws Relating to Civil Surveillance and the Protection of Privacy in the Context of Current and Emerging Technologies’ (Consultation Paper, December 2018).

[19] Well done, Millennials, that was Russell Crowe in Gladiator which was released (just into this Millennium) in 2020. And for those who got it wrong, Mel Gibson was initially considered for the role, but turned down because he was too old.

[20] No footnote required: even ‘bums’ that weren’t born then should get this reference. However, just in case: “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum”. The late and great Mr Hawke later quipped about this bon mot: "I'm very proud of it in one way [and] very disappointed that all the other, many brilliant things I've said are never mentioned”.


[22] Jeremy Lee v Superior Wood Pty Ltd [2019] FWCFB 2946,; see also

[23] In QF & Others and Spotless Group Limited (Privacy) [2019] AICmr 20, the employer gave employees' details to the Australian Workers Union and paid their membership fees, without their consent. The OAIC found that disclosure of employees' information to a union by the employer had insufficient connection with the employment relationship to fall within the exemption. “To fall within the exemption under s 7B(3), the act or practice must be directly related to the employment relationship, and not merely an act or practice having an indirect, consequential or remote effect on that relationship”: para 49. The employer was ordered to pay $60,000 compensation (including aggravated damages) to fourteen employees and a former employer.

[24] See further Australian Law Reform Commission, Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era (Discussion Paper No 80, 2014) Chapter 13 (Surveillance Devices); Peter Leonard, Surveillance of workplace communications: What Are the Rules?’ (August 2014) Privacy Law Bulletin; Daniel Stewart, Review of ACT Civil Surveillance Regulation, June 2016, at

_Review_of_ACT_Civil_Surveillance_Regulation_-_Report_22_June_2016.PD; Queensland Law Reform Commission, Review of Queensland’s laws Relating to Civil Surveillance and the Protection of Privacy in the Context of Current and Emerging Technologies: Consultation Paper, December 2018, at; Terms of Reference for Queensland's Laws Relating to Workplace Surveillance, 24 July 2018; Joanna Betteridge, Maddocks, Privacy and Surveillance in the Workplace (Victoria), February 2003; Victorian Law Reform Commission, Workplace Privacy: Final Report,, Workplace Privacy

[25] See further Australian Law Reform Commission, Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era (n 25), ‘13. Surveillance Devices’ particularly at [13.3]



[28] In ACT, Division 4.3 and section 39; in NSW, sections 21 and 22.

[29] In NSW, “surveillance of an employee while at work for an employer carried out or caused to be carried out by the employer and not carried out in compliance with the requirements of Part 2”; in the ACT, “covert surveillance” (a) means surveillance of a worker in a workplace conducted by an employer without notifying the worker under part 3 (Notified surveillance); but (b) does not include prohibited surveillance [see Part 5 of the Act.].”

[30] “Employee” has the same meaning as in the Industrial Relations Act 1996 (NSW) s 5.

[31] Definition of “surveillance” in section 3.

[32] “Worker” means an individual who carries out work in relation to a business or undertaking, whether for reward or otherwise, under an arrangement with the person conducting the business or undertaking. Examples—worker 1 employee; 2 independent contractor; 3 outworker; 4 person doing a work experience placement and 5 volunteer: section 7.

[33] “Workplace” means a place where work is, has been, or is to be, carried out by or for someone conducting a business or undertaking: section 10.

[34] Section 42

[35] The statutes are usefully compared in Daniel Stewart, Review of ACT Civil Surveillance Regulation, June 2016, at, Appendix 2; Queensland Law Reform Commission, Review of Queensland’s laws relating to civil surveillance and the protection of privacy in the context of current and emerging technologies: Consultation Paper, December 2018, at Appendix B, p133; and David Vaile, Monika Zalnieriute and Lyria Bennett Moses, The privacy and data protection regulatory framework for C-ITS and AV systems Report for the National Transport Commission, Appendix E from page 98.

[36] Only listening devices are covered in the Listening Devices Act 1992 (ACT). All devices are covered in Crimes (Surveillance

Devices) Act 2010 (ACT), but as in Surveillance Devices Act (Cth), unauthorised use is not prohibited

[37] NSW, the NT, SA and Victoria have laws specifically relevant to vehicles, namely a prohibition on tracking devices in vehicles

[38] Only listening devices are covered in the Listening Devices Act 1992 (ACT). All devices are covered in Crimes (Surveillance Devices) Act 2010 (ACT), but as in Surveillance Devices Act 2004 (Cth), unauthorised use is not prohibited

[39] Ibid.

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